The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

SMU students gather around a bucket of markers to write an encouraging note to put in “Welcome to the Shelter” kits at event in mid-April on SMU’s campus.
Dallas homeless recovery center, The Bridge, is a home
Morgan Shiver, Contributor • June 20, 2024

Who teaches us to write?

A couple dozen of us sat nearly comatose, coffee cups on each desk, awaiting Dr. Guerin’s tweed-attired form. Such was the scene both semesters my freshman year at Centenary College back in the early ’60s Dark Ages when I joined those bleary-eyed neophytes in that predawn English class. We covered a lot of worthy material that year, but it was Wilfred Guerin’s relentless critique of our writing that today remains fixed in my memory. During the intervening four-plus decades whenever I’ve attempted to craft a sermon, design a speech, construct a prayer, draft a proposal, organize a report or write an article, Dr. Guerin’s “principles of a good paragraph” have counseled self-critique: UNITY, COHERENCE, EMPHASIS, VARIETY – in that order, with the cadence of a chanted mantra.

Hats off to the legions of women and men who have taught us proper grammar, syntax, spelling and sentence construction and who across time have insisted upon attention to details not only of an essay’s content but also its structure and style. Where, oh, where, have y’all gone?

Recently I received an e-mail epistle from an SMU first-year student supporting the idea of a campus pub about which I had written. Even had he disputed the argument I’d proposed, reading that response would have been sheer pleasure, so eloquent and cogent his words. At some point in his high school career, I’ll wager large, at least one of his writing teachers cared enough about that essential craft to inspire him. He possesses today a most valuable asset, the ability to communicate clearly, effectively and with understated passion his obvious intelligence. Kudos to his rhetoric coach!

Whether in the Cox School or in Meadows or education, whether across the street in engineering or across campus in law or theology, not to mention each of the departments in Dedman College, here at SMU the value of a student’s capacity to write clearly, spell accurately, craft a coherent essay, construct an orderly brief, develop a logical argument or simply introduce herself in a business letter is, well, priceless. The foundation of a learned citizenry, moreover, is its capacity to engage in well-reasoned and logically framed discourse, both publicly and in private exchanges. Some might claim that the absence of this critical civic attribute compromises national security.

On this campus we have programs that attempt to remediate skills in writing not acquired during high school or even later, perish that thought. I refer not only to the talented folks down at the Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center but also to other nodes of writing coaches around campus. At times we’ve seen courses taught at Perkins for college graduates newly aware that to study theology properly, not to mention construct an effective sermon, one must demonstrate ability to write – clearly, coherently. Then there are those offerings in communication arts for our own students who need assistance crafting meaningful written communication, skills not acquired in earlier studies … wherever.

Clear, cogent writing must be learned. Even the most gifted author will readily confess that her task requires concentration, discipline and focused attention to details of structure and grammar that abet the development of style for content to make sense.

Here at SMU the metaphorical piers and beams of solid intellectual foundations rest upon that cadre of almost invisible laborers across the campus: those who teach us how to write. Are these capacities important to say, business? Surely. The sciences? Of course. Humanities? Really! Even micro-paleontologists and ethno-archeo-anthropologists receive accolades for their research and writing! And then there’s law and engineering, corporate communications, journalism, sports writing, preaching, marketing and MIS. Name a field or profession and even at an entry level you must able to write, and write well.

My hat goes off to you who teach the craft! But where are you? Wherever you may hang your departmental hats, you are the piers and beams of the intellectual foundations on which our entire educational enterprise stands or folds. You lay foundations for all that follows – everything! I’m not talking about rhetoric classes focused on speech communication. It’s writing skills that are in retreat. Just look around! Maybe just a column or two over from here. Does this “writing gap” bother anyone anymore?

It matters much that we confuse the “i” for “a” in “_llusive” or fail to distinguish proper use of “constitute” from “comprise” or know whether “i” follows “e” or the reverse. From you we learn the rules for spelling that do not depend on spell-check but on which that cheat depends. Whether diagramming sentences to illumine structural integrity and grammatical propriety or identifying mixed metaphors that confuse more than clarify, you build the base for argument, the absence of which reduces even the most insightful content to senseless drivel. We neglect you at our students’ peril, and at perhaps our own as well, condemning both of us to unnecessary misspellings, misplaced similes and more.

Across the years I’ve known several teachers who, while joining split infinitives and coercing dangling participles back in line, have been the difference between a student’s landing a fellowship and falling flat in written exchanges with potential employers. Your absence from this marvelous educational mix would be a constant curse. Bless you, wherever you are.

My thoughts often return to the first writing instructor and lecturer I met early in my time at SMU, a heroine in her own right and worthy of remembrance for many reasons. Most all her students remember her not only as a skilled rhetoric (writing and critical thinking) professor but also as a valiant victim of cancer, one who taught even after her physicians counseled rest. It’s fitting that the old English department honored her memory with a permanently endowed position decades ago. Laura Kasselman Devlin reveled in teaching the skills of clear thinking and cogent writing, accurate spelling, and periods, commas and semi-colons in places they belong. Said another way, Laura Devlin recognized the irreplaceable significance of well-taught writing and critical thought as one central element of the university’s educational mission – grounding young citizen scholars in the disciplines of effective written communication.

Who are these “unsung heroes and heroines” in our midst, individuals who share their talents, gifts and graces, as they bleed red ink on hundreds of papers, essays and paragraphs they grade each week? Today I celebrate Professor Guerin’s quadrilateral: Unity, Coherence, Emphasis, Variety and their handmaiden crafts of spelling, structure and style.

Let’s have some really incisive paragraphs, folks, some insightful essays and term papers — each a tiny altar to clear to reverenced and hallowed realizations that words, properly crafted, can change the world!

About the author:

William M. Finnin, Jr., Th. D. is the Chaplain and Minister to the university

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